Inside the imaginative world of LARPing

We spent a day running round the woods dressed as an apprentice scout

12th August 2018

The first thing I knew about a fight was a sword clanging against my shield, leaving me shaking like a gong that has just been struck. An arrow skidding past my feet quickly brought me back to reality, and I brought my shield up to deflect another blow. Somehow I had ended up in the thick of the action, with very little clue as to what exactly was going on, and very few skills to get me out of there. I got lucky as my wild swing with my hammer connected with my assailant’s flank, and he fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.

I began to pursue the now rapidly-retreating archer when I heard the shout “time” ring out, reverberating from the tree trunks around me before eventually being swallowed by the bushes and brambles. I stopped. “Time” meant one of two things. Either I had stumbled unwittingly into a trap, or there were walkers. Luckily for me, it was the latter.

I stood to one side and exchanged those awkward English pleasantries with a family of four and their two pugs walking down the woodland path. By this point in the day, I was used to the inquisitive wet noses and slack jaws of dogs and children, but the awkward nod with the parents was still slightly uncomfortable. It’s almost as if parents don’t want their children to see the evil forces of the dark gods overthrown.

Once they were out of sight, I picked up my hammer and prepared to smack another cultist back into arms of their unholy god.

“Time!” The shout came again, the action resumed and I took off running once more.

LARPing, or Live Action Role Playing, is a weekend pastime enjoyed by many an unexpected person. For all you know, any number of your friends, co-workers, mothers or brothers could be moonlighting as a half-elf alchemist or an ogre mercenary every weekend and you would be none the wiser — unless you happened to be walking your dog in a certain patch of woodland at that time.

LARPing takes place in the real world 📸 Helen Dodds

It’s easy to see how LARPing could look odd to an outsider — as they walk through a clearing of frozen warriors, head down, pace slightly faster than what would usually be considered normal, and not wanting to make any more eye contact than necessary with a bunch of heavily-armed, and often pretty blood-splattered, cosplayers.

Weird though it may seem, the concept is just an extension of your standard fantasy genre. Like a video game but more immersive, like Dungeons and Dragons but outdoors. But it’s no use looking at it from the outside, so I went along to a session with the Fools and Heroes roleplaying group, to find out exactly what goes on and why people do it. And it turned out that while the blood splatters are make-up, and the weapons made of latex, once you get inside, it all feels very real.

One player described their LARPing experience to me as their “therapy, exercise and socialising all in one”. There was a general consensus that everyone was getting away from their day jobs, their daily lives, and that LARPing was the highlight of their month.

Excited to see what all the fuss was about, I was immediately pushed in at the deep end. A quick intro to fighting mechanics quickly boils down into an impromptu skirmish where I find myself lost in the melee. The basics are simple, but when you start learning about enchantments and venoms and spells and sharps, all of which require you to react differently if hit, it quickly becomes overwhelming.

Over the course of a morning, I played a living scarecrow, a cultist, and a faerie guard in a variety of encounters

The way that the day is set up means that the players are split into two teams, each with a separate mission on the day, and each playing the enemies (or “monstering”) in the other team’s mission. Luckily newbies like me usually “monster” first, meaning that consequences of not knowing and/or forgetting rules are minor, and more importantly don’t result in permanent character disfigurements.

Stories have been written, or at least designed, by a referee, who directs the monsters out of character and carefully leads the players with in-character clues along a series of encounters. Over the course of a morning, I played a living scarecrow, a cultist, and a faerie guard in a variety of encounters from ambushes to pact signings. I received snippets of the story, but overall that didn’t really matter to the monsters, who were just there to get stabbed a lot. And also my scarecrow eyes were stolen because they’re valuable.

The monstering was tough, especially when you don’t really know anyone else. Much of the morning was spent hanging around and waiting for the players, some occasional fights and, in my case, a lot of confusion.

Each LARPer has their own character 📸 Kai Wortley

After the morning session I still had little-to-no clue of what I was actually doing, and people had started asking questions that I didn’t know the answers to.

“Have you decided your class yet?”

“What’s your character called?”

“What weapons are you buying?”

Luckily, over a very casual lunch my fellow players explained a lot more about character creation and how the afternoon was going to work. Everyone was very friendly and chatty, and it really seemed like a close community, just perhaps one that I wasn’t quite a part of yet. Nevertheless, I was beginning to see the levels of camaraderie and friendship that kept these people coming back every month. In or out of character, everyone was helping each other, whether advising on tactics or relationships.

Exhausting my limited imaginative powers, I came up with my character, an apprentice scout called Dave Thunderlance. Unfortunately my character was too poor to afford a lance, thunderous or not, so I settled for a big hammer. Everyone starts with next to nothing, but it seemed that every other character was so levelled up that they were masters of their chosen fields and had their free pick of kit.

My borrowed equipment consisted of some basic leather armour, a rough tunic tied with my belt, a trusty hammer and a shield.

A word of advice to any potential LARPers (LARPists?) out there: bring a spare belt. Because I needed to use mine to tie around my tunic, I spent a lot of my time hoiking up my trousers so that I wouldn’t end up in an embarrassing situation in front of all my new friends. I imagine we’d have had some great banter about it, but I wasn’t willing to find out.

Everyone who had introduced themselves to me earlier was suddenly entirely in character, and would only answer to their character’s name

As it happened, my trousers were the least of my worries. Once we were on the move for our own mission, to track down a thief who stole the keys to the city of Kirklee (Leeds), I realised that I didn’t know anyone’s names. Everyone who had introduced themselves to me earlier was suddenly entirely in character, and would only answer to their character’s name.

I’m bad with names at the best of times, but nevertheless with around 40 names to remember, I set out, desperate to make a name (or two) for myself. Our group encountered various grievances throughout the day, which involved some fights against raiders in the area, and falling into a lot of cleverly laid traps that we really should have seen coming.

As the afternoon wore on I gradually learned how things worked, and the more skilled players with better rules and weapons helped me out if I got a bit stuck. I grew in confidence and felt the urge to level up to get myself a cool spear like the elf or a stock of potions like an alchemist.

As every spear, potion, bandage or elf ear your character has must be physically represented on your person, the better players’ props can get pretty exciting. However, my lack of cool shit was not only to do with my character and in-game currency, however, as these authentic-looking latex armouries cost a fair few British pounds.

Fools and Heroes is the LARP group that describes itself as a “gateway LARP”. It’s a relatively cheap affair, costing only £20 a year in subscription fees, but they pride themselves on the quality of their storytelling and accuracy of costumes. Apparently, once people have gathered a bit of gear and some level of expertise, they often move on to bigger, more expensive, and more consuming roleplaying groups. They don’t go the whole hog like some more expensive and exclusive LARP groups, where even materials like polyester are banned, but they like to keep things “realistic”.

Costumes can cost hundreds of pounds 📸 Helen Dodds

If a character wants to buy a new spear, for instance, they will have to barter their gold online in dedicated forums with blacksmiths and alchemists, and then in real money terms you’ll have to head to LARP-specific outlets.

You can get a pretty cheap sword for around £20, but these rarely pass the safety checks. It’s probably not worth the risk. A recommended sword will set you back £46, while far cooler weapons such as spears are around £130, and genuine metal armour can easily reach £700 for a full set.

Very few people were dressed in full plate armour, but most had a cache of weapons with them, and changed their armour and weapon when they were playing monsters. Most players looked to have forked out around £250 on equipment, from potions and scrolls to weapons and armour.

I met one player who was proud to keep all his armour DIY, and as cheap as possible. While it certainly looked as good as anyone else’s, its in-game abilities were hampered due to the difficulty of actually crafting actual metal armour on the cheap, meaning he was stuck with weaker leather items.

I enjoyed my time as a measly apprentice hero and got stuck in with some great fights and puzzles

To make the most out of LARPing, you definitely need to commit. It’s a massive investment of time and money, but with a palpable payoff. I enjoyed my time as a measly apprentice hero and got stuck in with some great fights and puzzles, so I can only imagine what it would be like to grow your character, learn new skills and upgrade your weapons alongside a team of adventurers and friends.

However, during the afternoon I had not thought for a minute about the cost — in time or money. My mind had been preoccupied with conquering, puzzling, and discovering with my team of adventurers. I had been sucked in completely, and forgotten that the real world even existed, or that everyone’s swords had been bought off the internet for an extortionate price. I was Dave Thunderlance.

As the day ended and everyone gathered to discuss their coolest moments or epic battles, it became clear why these people come together once a month to dress up as elves and trolls. It’s an escape from everyday reality like any book, film, or game, but you’re more involved, more sociable and you’re definitely having more fun.

12th August 2018